In a provocative move directed against China, the US Navy dispatched two huge nuclear-powered aircraft carriers—the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Ronald Reagan—to engage in three days of military exercises in the Philippine Sea—adjacent to, but not in, the South China Sea. The vessels and their accompanying strike groups of cruisers and destroyers carry 12,000 sailors and 140 military aircraft.
The war games, which finished yesterday, involved long-range strikes as well as sea surveillance, air defence drills and defensive air combat training. Rear Admiral John Alexander, commander of the USS Reagan carrier strike group, boasted:
“No other navy can concentrate this much combat power in one sea … It was truly impressive.” While the navy neither confirms nor denies the presence of nuclear weapons, both aircraft carriers are capable of carrying them.
This massive show of force took place as the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is due to rule in coming weeks on a US-backed challenge by the Philippines to Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The judgment, which is expected to favour the Philippines, will become the starting point for Washington to ramp up its aggressive campaign against so-called Chinese “expansionism” and “bullying” of its neighbours.
An unnamed American official told the New York Times the message of the exercises was unmistakable and the timing was deliberate. Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval
operations, told a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) conference yesterday that the war games provided “a terrific opportunity for us just to do some high-end war-fighting and training.”
Richardson declared that the rare exercises, involving two carriers, aimed at signalling the US commitment to its regional allies. Then, in a thinly-veiled warning to China, he added: “For anyone who wants to destabilise the region, we hope that there is a deterrence message there as well.”
The exercises followed last week’s “Malabar” war games in the same waters involving the US, Japanese and Indian navies—again to practice “complex, high-end war-fighting.”